The Visual Village

This story appears in the October 2013 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Shutter speeds, f-stops, film speeds, ISOs: Aspiring photographers used to have to master the mechanics of a camera before they could hope to create an arresting image. Today, with the explosion of camera apps on our smartphones, we’re all photographers, and pretty good ones at that, since the quality of smartphone images now rivals that of digital cameras.

The new ease of photography has unleashed a seemingly insatiable appetite for capturing the magical and the mundane. We are documenting everyday moments with manic intensity, whether it’s an image of our breakfast, our cat—or the cat’s breakfast. And rather than collect pictures in scrapbooks, we share and like and comment on them with friends and strangers around the globe. Even photojournalists are experimenting with mobile phones because their virtual invisibility makes it easier to capture unguarded moments. And the Internet allows them to bypass traditional media outlets to act as their own publishers, reaching huge audiences via social media sites such as Instagram. A photograph taken in New York can be uploaded and within seconds get a response from someone in Lagos.

With so many photographs on the Web every day, no one image gets to be special for long. Decades after the Vietnam War, Nick Ut’s photo of nine-year-old Kim Phuc, burning from napalm and running naked down a road, is still vivid in our imaginations. Eddie Adams’s image of a South Vietnamese general executing a Vietcong infiltrator changed the way the public saw the war and arguably affected the course of history. But if there are fewer memorable images today, it’s not because there are fewer good images. It’s because there are so many.

The ubiquity of cameras is transforming the way we experience dramatic events. Surveillance cameras are everywhere, providing police with clues to crimes like the Boston Marathon bombing. When there are demonstrations in Tahrir Square or a tornado tears through a town in Oklahoma, it is ordinary citizens with cell phones, not photojournalists, who often provide the first news images. Quality still matters, but it’s less important than what’s relevant and instantly shared.

As the masses embrace photography and news outlets enlist citizen journalists, professional standards appear to be shifting. Before digital images most people considered photographs to be accurate renderings of reality. Today images can be altered in ways undetectable to the naked eye. Photojournalists are trained to accurately represent what they witness. Yet any image can be doctored to create an “improved” picture of reality. The average viewer is left with no way to assess the veracity of an image except through trust in a news organization or photographer.

The slope gets slipperier still when even photojournalists start experimenting with camera apps like Hipstamatic or Instagram, which encourage the use of filters. Images can be saturated, brightened, faded, and scratched to create artful, hyper-real, and simulated-vintage photographs. Photographers using camera apps to cover wars and conflicts have created powerful images—but also controversy. Some worry that faux-vintage photographs romanticize war. With their nostalgic allusion to past wars, they risk distancing us from those who fight today’s wars. Such images may be more useful in conveying how the person behind the camera felt than in documenting what was actually in front of the camera.

Yet photography has always been more subjective than we assume, each picture a result of a series of decisions—where to stand, what lens to use, what to leave in and what to leave out of the frame. Does manipulating photographs with camera app filters make them less true? Google Street View, whose cameras take images all over the world, is now used by art photographers who sit at their computers and curate eye-catching frames to claim as their own. With surveillance cameras blanketing urban centers, have we progressed to the point where cameras don’t need photographers and photographers don’t even need cameras?

There’s something powerful and exciting about the society-wide experiment the digital age has thrust upon us. These new tools make it easier to tell our own stories—and they empower others to do the same. Many members of the media get stuck on the same narratives, focusing on elections, legislatures, wars, famines, and disasters, and in the process miss out on the less dramatic images of daily life that can be as revealing.

The democratization of photography might even be good for democracy itself. Hundreds of millions of potential citizen journalists make the world smaller and help hold leaders accountable. From Tehran to Taksim Square, people can now show the world what they are up against, making it increasingly difficult for regimes to hide their actions. If everyone has a camera, Big Brother isn’t the only one watching.

Who knows, this fanatical documentation and hyperconnection could lead to a profound shift in our way of being. Perhaps we are witnessing the development of a universal visual language, one that could change the way we relate to each other and the world. Of course, as with any language, there will be those who produce poetry and those who compile shopping lists.

It’s not clear whether this flowering of image-making will lead to a more visually literate public—or simply numb us to the profound effects a well-made image can have. But the change is irreversible. Let’s hope the millions of new photographs made today help us see what we all have in common, rather than what sets us apart.